On May 1 2022, First Responders Day, we acknowledge the life-saving work of nearly 6,000 CUPE paramedics and dispatchers in Emergency Medical Services while calling attention to the crisis in the sector.

Last October, when we surveyed CUPE EMS members, the results painted a bleak picture of understaffed paramedic services, widespread ambulance shortages, and severe impacts on the health and safety of patients and workers alike:

  • 92 per cent of survey respondents said their employers did not have enough staff to meet the needs of their communities
  • 43% of members said they experience Code Blacks every day (occasions when there are no ambulances available to respond to a 911 call)
  • 97 per cent said their workload had increased during the pandemic. 84 per cent said their workload is impacting their mental and/or physical health
  • 91 per cent work overtime regularly. About half of them say they log anywhere from 13 hours to over 36 hours of overtime a month
  • 67 per cent said their workload has resulted in headaches/migraines, with 66 per cent saying they have experienced anxiety and/or panic attacks

This state of affairs cannot be blamed on the pandemic alone. In March 2020, CUPE released Under Pressure, a report calling attention to the desperate need to address the many challenges in the sector.

Scheduled ambulance hours had not been keeping pace with demand even prior to COVID-19, and it’s only gotten worse since. Instead of hiring more staff, employers have been forcing paramedics to skip meal breaks and contribute more overtime.

The resultant stress is causing more injuries and exacerbating a staffing crisis.

Both the provincial and municipal governments have a role to play in improving paramedic services. Although municipalities employ paramedics and dispatchers, 50% of operational funding comes from the province.

The provincial government is also responsible for hospitals, cuts to which impact paramedics’ ability to transfer patients safely to the care of nurses. Increasing wait-times at hospitals (or offload delays) prevent paramedics from getting back on the road and responding to 911 calls.

On First Responders Day, employers and governments say all the right things when expressing their gratitude and appreciation. But workers in the sector are tired of statements alone – we need action.

We are not asking for much. EMS workers want decent working conditions to continue doing what they love: serving people in our communities.

Paramedics and dispatchers save lives every day. But they need more support to perform that job to the best of their abilities.

Fred Hahn, President of CUPE Ontario
Yolanda McClean, Secretary-Treasurer of CUPE Ontario
Niko Georgiadis, Chair of the CUPE Ambulance Committee of Ontario